Well, the fix is almost official. Sadly, Public Works Director Eric Johnston, with the help of council-member Michael Lilliquist, did exactly what we expected them to do: They created an internet advisory group that is very weighted toward big-telecom. Of 16 voting and non-voting members, (seven voting and nine non-voting,) there is only one voting member to represent public interests. Extra non-voting seats were created for big telecom and WAVE so that they may act as experts against the publics’ wishes.
On Monday, January 11, the Bellingham Broadband Advisory Group members are set to be elected. Below is the list of names. Sadly, neither Whatcom County PUD Commissioner and President Atul Deshmane, nor I, are on the list (aka, the biggest champions for public fiber). On top of that neither is the president of Technology Alliance Group Northwest (TAG), Michael Gan who supports public fiber, tech education for the poor, and our local net-neutral providers among many other things. The libraries, who use the existing public network extensively and are providing some of the only access to it during the pandemic, also have no representation. What do they all share? They used their First Amendment rights to speak openly about supporting public fiber, so Michael Lilliquist and Eric Johnston simply made sure they were not included on the committee.
Just as we predicted, it’s apparent our city does not want a real discussion about broadband that might benefit our citizens; their mission is to protect big telecom.
In fact, even the goals of the BAG are still not clearly outlined. We, and presumably they, don’t actually know what, if anything, they’re going to do. We do know it is unlikely they will turn out a real Dig Once Policy to override the fictitious conduit ordinance I’ve written about before. You may remember, it’s the one that doesn’t talk about actually installing conduit. Here is the link to my article about the fake conduit ordinance. .
Adding insult to injury, there is no real balance on this advisory group. For instance, big telecom is overly represented, while the libraries do not have any representation at all, even though they’re big users of our existing public network and are providing public access during the pandemic to many. Business interests, who unfortunately have virtually no technological backgrounds or expertise were prioritized as voting members over those of us with technical backgrounds who would advocate for our community and could handle technical and intricate policy discussions with big telecom reps.
It is likely that only big telecom will have much of a voice, because they will be highlighted as the experts. Eric Johnston told me that this was part of his plan during a recent interview. He said he didn’t want technical people as voting members, and that the expertise would come from the non-voting members. In fact, he spent a third of my interview highlighting how he, Michael, and “several other he interviewed” personally were concerned that I “was too set in my ways on recommending fiber.” Yes Eric, that’s because you need inexpensive, reliable, fiber services to make everything work correctly for the greatest number of people. So that’s exactly the discussion we need to have in our community especially during a pandemic when those services are more needed than ever before. We should pause for a moment and recall that the COB is still siting on an existing publicly owned fiber-optic network during a pandemic and it doesn’t bother them at all.
Of the nine non-voting members, almost all have serious, pro-big-telecom, conflicts of interest, and in fact, seven of the nine are sure to defend and promote big telecom. So the fix is in: the telecoms are set to be presented as the only experts and they will be provided a captive audience in the voting members.
In the list below, I’ll include the conflicts of interest in parentheses following each name. The information that follows the parentheses are descriptions from the COB. In short, of the seven voting members, three lack broadband experience, there is no indication they are public broadband experts, nor have any history of working with the digital divide. Neither Commissioner Deshmane nor I are on the committee so there will be little expertise and minimal input regarding public broadband. Finally, there are no interviews scheduled to hear from any “outside” public broadband experts, for instance, experts from Mount Vernon, Anacortes, or Community Broadband Networks. At least one, possibly two, outside interviews will advocate for big telecom and/or WAVE. WAVE will, of course, fail to mention how their services cost 13.5 times more than they do in Anacortes and are not available everywhere.
Note: COI = Conflict of Interest.
I should also note that Eric’s descriptions are totally inadequate.
Linda Fels. (COI: None known.) Linda retired from a career as a software developer with the Indian Health Services and is a small business owner relying on internet access.
Maximilian Carper. (COI: Spent much of his career working with Comcast, CenturyLink, and other big telecoms). Maximilian is an IT and network technology professional with a strong technical background relevant to the conversation.
Kristopher Keillor. (Working on a community fiber project. Possible COI: WAVE is likely providing the dark fiber for this at a very high cost.) Kristopher is an electrical engineering student at WWU with relevant technical expertise. Kristopher has been a disaster relief volunteer with AmeriCorps and is interested in engaging in more civic issues.
RB Tewksbury. (COI: Business rep. Why does the business community need to be represented here over someone with tech experience that can protect the poor and close the digital divide?) RB has a strong background in business administration and finance. RB has served on the Board of several non-profit organizations.
Don Gischer. (COI: Business rep. Ok, I applaud his work for our deaf community, but what about his experience with broadband? Again, why does the business community need to be represented here? Johnston and Lilliquist chose two business people as voting members over someone with tech experience who can protect the poor and close the Digital Divide?) Don is a former Bellingham City Council member with a background in business and general public policy. Don has been recently active in supporting access to city services for the hearing impaired using technology (eg hearing loops). (Note: Eric refers here to the deaf as “hearing impaired.” He seems unaware that this is offensive to the deaf community.)
Michelle Kopcha (COI: None known.) A former livestock veterinarian and educator, Michelle brings a broad, general perspective. Michelle has been active in the community through the League of Women voters and Bellingham City Club.
Spencer Moore. (Appliance tech, with limited network experience. Also, this seems odd because Eric told me that he specifically didn’t want people with technical expertise as voting members. If you’re going to include one, why include one that hasn’t worked on public broadband?). Spencer is a network engineer with a strong technical background relevant to the conversation.
As ex officio (non-voting) members:
, MOX Fiber (His career is built around protecting private telecom interests like WAVE, big telecom and his own company.)
, Lumen (formerly Centurylink)
, City of Bellingham, ITSD (Marty was specifically hired by the last administration to work with big telecom. She will act as a big telecom rep. here.)
, Bellingham School District IT (The schools’ contract with CenturyLink for their external connections, as required by our odd WA state laws, so they will most likely protect big telecom. Kurt has also blocked network testing of the publicly owned school networks and refuses to expand access as I’ve written about before. He has been clear that he doesn’t want the schools to “be an ISP to the community.” You know, the same pesky community that pays for everything the schools have).
, Port of Bellingham (The Port has an interest in running their own Open Access public fiber network.)
Whatcom PUD (We discovered this appointment was made by Lilliquist and Johnston without consulting the PUD. The PUD was supposed to choose their own member and it most likely would have been Commissioner Christine Grant or Atul Deshmane. They will be discussing why the COB went around them and didn’t have the common courtesy to consult them regarding the appointment on Tuesday after the COB BAG conformation vote on Monday.)
, City of Bellingham, Public Works (Has always protected big telecom.)
So please, I must ask you once again to contact your councils and mayor and ask that public broadband expertise be included on this critical advisory group.